Run for the Hills
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Run for the Hills

Run for the Hills

by Roy M. Wallack

Bill McDermott of La Habra Heights, California had always been a good runner, easily placing in the top 10 in 10Ks and marathons. But something strange happened to him when, 20 years ago, he moved into a neighborhood near hilly trails. "Instead of running for an hour, max, on the road," he says, "I almost immediately started doing two, three-hour runs. And I didn't feel like I was working any harder than I did running on pavement."

He started entering trail races, and quickly started winning.

Since 1978, McDermott has finished first place at one of the nation's toughest trail runs, the Catalina Island Marathon, a whopping 14 times. A Boeing engineer who rides his bike 12 miles to work every day and is a top age-group Ironman triathlete (he won his age group at the 1998 Canadian Ironman), he set the Catalina course record of 2:39:47 at age 40 and last won at age 46. His dominance on this difficult route, with its total elevation gain of 3,700 feet, has been called "god-like, incredible" by USA Track and Field spokesman Ryan Lampa, who marvels over McDermott's "freakish" longevity. (Few runners stay at the top of their game for more than five years, much less 20.) He is now known in running circles as "Buffalo" Bill McDermott, for the bison that roam the interior of the mountainous isle 20 miles off the Los Angeles coast.

Yes, trail running has been good to Buffalo Bill. But ask him why he likes it so much, and he won't initially mention his victories - or the amazing agility that has made him faster than anyone else on the planet at running downhill. What he'll talk about first is something trail runners of all velocities notice the very first time they hit the dirt: The lack of street lights, curbs, cars and dogs. The air's clean - or at least cleaner. And there's a serenity, a peace of mind in losing yourself in nature.

"You get a new attitude," says McDermott. "You're less focused on going fast, more focused on enjoying the trees and the rivers and the birds. You're liberated from the urgency to go fast, to look at your time splits. You've got the freedom to stop and gaze for a few minutes at a beautiful vista."

Another major benefit of trail running is injury reduction. Softer landings at a variety of angles on an uneven surface not only reduce the opportunity for the typical repetitive-motion injuries you get on the street (tendinitis, strained Achilles tendons, plantar fasciitis, shin splints), but it gives you stronger, more balanced leg muscles.

And then there's the camaraderie. "Trails and races are uncrowded - still small and nice," Buffalo Bill says. "You know everybody there - even though trail running's a lot more popular nowadays."

That's an understatement. In the late 90s, trail running exploded. About 2 million people now run once a month on trails, according to Nancy Hobbs, president of AATRA, the Colorado-based All-American Trail Running Assn. whose calendar lists over 900 races, a four-fold increase in a decade.

With California, Colorado and the northeast leading the way, the number of off-road running clubs has mushroomed all over the country. Groups like the 80-strong Santa Monica Trail Runners Club have seen membership rise ten-fold since 1990, says president Stan Swartz.

The shoe companies have noticed. Most shoe makers didn't even offer trail-running shoes ten years ago, but now adidas and Nike offer entire lines devoted to the sport. All running-shoe makers now offer at least one or two of these knobby-soled, weather-repellent dirt dogs, which are sturdier, more supportive and more ground-hugging than their street-bred brethren.

Of course, you don't necessarily need trail-running shoes; Buffalo Bill, like many trail runners, just uses the same old Nike Air Structure Triax stability trainers he wore on the street. What you probably do need, however, is advice on trail-running technique.

by Roy Wallack

While hitting the dirt would seem as easy as lacing up a new pair of trail shoes and scoping out a topo map, the truth is that trail running is to road running what mountain biking is to road cycling - way more technical. To get the most out of your trail time, the world's most natural activity, running, needs to be relearned.

"You've got to run with a different technique, dress differently and even have a different mindset," says Ann Trason, the nine-time winner of the Western States 100, one of the world's most prestigious off-road ultra-endurances races.

The best way to learn? "Just do what I did," says off-road star Tim Twietmeyer. "Buy a house on the route of the Western States 100 race."

That method paid off for Twietmeyer, who won the race five times. But if living on the American River in Auburn, California isn't in your plans, don't fret. Here Tweitmeyer, Trason, McDermott and other off-road experts offer some pointers to help you hit the ground running.

  2. The scenery's beautiful, but roots and rocks will turn you into a human avalanche if your eyes aren't looking at the ground. Trails aren't perfectly groomed, like city streets, and come booby-trapped with stumbling blocks in all shapes and sizes. Mountain bikers and mogul skiiers make good trail runners because of the way they watch the terrain. Basic rule: Look two steps ahead and down.

    Incidentally, AATRA's Nancy Hobbs notes that, while the most common "street" runing injuries tend to be of hte repetitive motion variety - knee pain, tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, dirt injuries are most likely to include broken ribs, twisted ankles, bee stings and bruises caused by tripping and falling on your face.


  4. Keeping legs slightly bent and elbows up lowers your center of gravity and provides balance, keeping you from falling on the uneven surface and poised to move side-to-side around obstacles.

    "I think of it like dancing," says Danelle Ballangee, one of America¿s best trail and "sky" (high altitude) racers. "You gotta be ready to move every which way."

    No matter how balanced you are, however, you will fall sometimes, which is why most trail runners wear full-finger gloves.


  6. Don't look down too much on ascents. You need all the oxygen you can get on the up-side, so tilt your head up, open your windpipe and breathe deep. This is critical at high elevation.


  8. Don't be embarrassed to walk the tough grades ¿ it's hardly slower than running and is far easier on your heart and lungs.

    "On my first 50-miler, I was shocked to see somebody walk past me," admits Ann Trason. "If you're a beginner, walk a lot until your body gets used to it."


  10. Fight the urge to cruise downhill on your heels. The forefoot provides far more control. And remember the four-times rule: "Your quads will hurt after the first three times you run downhils ¿ they're not used to the pounding," says Trason. The fourth time, when they're used to it, is usually the charm.

    "Running fast downhill is where you can make up a lot of time on the field," advised Buffalo Bill McDermott, whose history of doing just that has earned him his other nickname: The Downhill Devil. "Concentrate on taking long, smooth steps, almost like you're riding a mountain bike. You won't trash your quads if you're smooth."


  12. With no fountains in the mountains and most streams polluted, even heading out for a quickie without a CamelBak or a water bottle is dangerous.

    "You get so caught up in it that you always stay out longer than planned," says Ben Hian, a former #1 ranked trail racer. "The steep terrain works you harder than you think, so dehydration can set in fast."


  14. Roadies are used to measuring their performances by miles, but trail runners should gauge theirs by time.

    "It's a change of mindset," say Hian. "You go out for an hour-not for 10 miles."

    If basking in nature doesn't change your mileage mentality, the lack of markers in the woods will.

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